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Government Approves Transfer of American Convicted of Cocaine Trafficking

October 28, 1988

MADRID, Spain (AP) _ An American whose arrest and conviction on cocaine trafficking charges drew the attention of former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese will be transferred to a U.S. prison, the government said Friday.

The decision to authorize the transfer of Conan D. Owen, 23, of Annandale, Va., was made Friday during the weekly Cabinet meeting, under the provisions of a prisoner exchange agreement between Spain and the United States, a government spokesman said.

It was not known when Owen would leave his Barcelona jail.

″It’s normally a fast process,″ said Helga Soto, a spokeswoman for the Spanish Embassy in Washington. ″It will not last a long time.″

″It means he’s going to come home,″ said a relieved Ernest Owen, Owen’s father. ″That’s the first thing. And we’re extremely happy about that after so many false starts and false hopes.″

Once in the United States, U.S. Justice Department officials could decide to grant Owen immediate parole.

″It’s not clear at this time how long or where he would have to serve the remainder of his sentence,″ said Justice Department spokesman John Russell in Washington. ″In keeping with our policy, he will probably be incarcerated in a federal institution, and we will try to have him incarcerated as close to his home as possible.″

Owen, a free-lance photographer who once worked as an intern in the office of Vice President George Bush, was arrested March 13, 1987, at Barcelona’s El Prat airport. Customs agents found more than fourpounds of high-grade cocaine in a false-bottomed suitcase he had checked through on a flight from Santiago, Chile, to Barcelona.

Owen, who spent more than a year in Barcelona’s 85-year-old Model Prison before his trial last March 26, told the court he had been conned into taking the suitcase to Barcelona from Santiago by several people who had contracted him to take photographs for travel brochures. He testified he never examined the contents of the suitcase.

A three-judge tribunal deliberated 10 days before finding him guilty of drug trafficking, but cleared him of drug smuggling charges. There are no jury trials in Spain. Owen was sentenced to six years and one day in prison and fined $16,000.

Owen’s attorney appealed the sentence but later dropped the attempt. Under the prisoner exchange agreement between Spain and the United States, all appeals must be exhausted before application is made for a transfer.

Following Owen’s March conviction, Meese issued a statement saying the U.S. ″regrets very much this action by the Spanish court ... typically each country has its own justice system. We respect the Spanish justice system. It is different from ours in certain respects, but what we can hope for is that we do have good relations with the Spanish authorities, and we hope again, we continue to believe that the fact that the man’s innocence will be ultimately be known and understood.″

The case raised a furor in the Spanish press, which saw the action of the U.S. Justice Department and the testimony by several agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency as evidence Owen was working for the U.S. government when he was caught. He denied that he was working for the U.S. government.

Owen graduated from Syracuse University in 1986 with a degree in photojournalism and worked for Bush in 1984.

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